Exercise Bulimia ~ Compulsive Exercise

Do you listen to your body, or has your aerobic exercise program become compulsive exercise or exercise bulimia?

'Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul, the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other.' ~ Henry David Thoreau

Eating disorders take many forms. Compulsive exercise to lose weight is one of the forms that is often poorly understood and often unrecognized. It is way more common than you might believe. As you read through this article, I am sure that you might be able to think of someone who fits this picture.

Because the exercise bulimic is very physically active, all this exercise may appear at first blush to be a way for healthy weight loss. But on closer examination, it is anything but healthy.

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Emotions Affect Our Body

Emotions affect our body in extreme ways. The suppression of very strong emotions that make a person feel badly about him or herself is very powerful and can have extremely negative and unhealthy outcomes.

Compulsive disorders are manifestations of a severe body-mind-soul disconnection in those affected. The physical body is totally denied a voice and the mind exerts extreme and obsessive control over it. This is the psychological basis for exercise bulimia.

I have noticed a phenomenon among some of my acquaintances. I have often wondered whether or not long-distance runners are exercise bulimics or compulsive exercisers.

I noticed that often runners tend towards extreme goals for themselves. It seemed to me that what began as a joy for running and the accomplishment of physical fitness, over time had become lost.

The joy of running is replaced when they become obsessed with the number of miles they absolutely must run in a week, or even in a day. They feel obsessed to run as many marathons or triathlons that they can squeeze in a summer.

Exercising had become a compulsion. The joy of running was replaced with an obsession known as exercise bulimia.

Often this compulsion is at great cost to their physical selves. I always thought that they had way more will power and drive than I ever had. However, I was never willing to nurse the shin splints or the tight iliotibial bands, sore knees or the stress fractures of the feet or whatever, by sitting in tubs of ice water and gobbling up the ibuprofen like candy.

For me, this type of physical abuse has always been counterintuitive to a healthy state. All of the injuries from running are overuse injuries, and this I knew! I just was never able to connect the dots to exercise bulimia. It was not a known concept a few years ago and the public’s obsession with physical fitness masked the problem. After all, they were eating – no problem, right?

Exercise Blogging

In my quest for knowledge about body illnesses and injuries and why we sustain them, I started to read many runners’ blogs online. I began to notice a pattern. First they happily tell you of the miles they accomplished that week and then provide a log for you to see their progress, which includes many, many miles. Everyone who reads the blog comments, ‘Great job,’ ‘You go girl,’ ‘You are a much better disciplinarian than I,’ etc, etc.

Then, secondly, the blogger proceeds to describe the injuries they are nursing, and does anyone know what to do for the tight IT bands that really work?

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Then lastly, but most importantly, they talk about all the great food they have eaten that day! They show what they cooked and they show beautiful photos of the food and confess to their food junkie behavior.

This type of blogging is ubiquitous on the Internet. Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. It felt like self-destructive behavior to me. I thought, all this crazy exercise, despite horrible knee pain, IT band pain, ankle pain and so forth was a way to eat all they wanted, guilt free! They could burn off all they had eaten through compulsive exercise. I thought it was exercise anorexia (It was really exercise bulimia, but I didn’t have it quite pegged yet).

Moderate forms of aerobic exercise are great for the health of your body-mind-soul, because it raises your endorphins, those wonderful, feel-good hormones that give you a natural high. But exercise compulsion in it's extreme form, tears down your health and destroys the balance of your body, mind and soul!

Friend's Stories of Exercise Bulimia

I was recently speaking to a friend of mine about this pattern of behavior that I had noticed. I spoke of my opinion that I believed that most of these young women with chronic injuries were exercise anorexics. That they needed to run in order to eat whatever they wanted. They needed to run to feel good about themselves. Instead of a way to be fit, or to enjoy running as an activity unto itself, they saw it as a way to control their weight.

My friend totally agreed with my observations. She said she knew, because she had been a victim herself. However, for her, it was not exercise anorexia, which is exercise in the absence of meaningful eating, but exercise bulimia! And she admitted that it was a long road to recovery for her. ‘Running was a way of purging the calories from my body,’ she admitted to me. She said this with great emphasis and emotion, so I knew it was her soul speaking.

She admitted that at the ripe old age of 40 her body constantly aches from the exercise abuse that she had put herself through for years and years as a young woman trying to control her weight. These are aches that she has to deal with now and most likely for the rest of her life.

I had another friend who would do marathons and triathlons constantly. She would push herself and push herself and then not be able to get out of bed for days. She was in her early 30’s. She was always justifying her behavior and hiring more and more trainers to help her in her quest to be a triathlete. Her whole life was consumed by her running, biking and swimming. If she just did so many more miles, or pushed herself a little harder, she would improve her performance time and be a better athlete! She was an exercise bulimic and didn’t know it!

This same friend refused to go anywhere or do much of anything because her training would always take priority. I would make plans to do an activity with her and invariably she wouldn’t feel up to it, because she was in bed resting after a hard workout. What she was suffering from was the burnout of over-training ~ the obsession from exercise bulimia.

She would say body-focused statements to me like, ‘You know, most women would kill to have round butts like ours! They even have surgery to give them round butts!’ Her body image obsessions were pretty obvious as she repeated these types of sayings frequently. I had no idea what was going on at the time, since this was some years ago. However, I did know that her behavior was unhealthy.

More Common than Believed

Exercise bulimia is much more common than we believe, because it is so well masked under ‘physical fitness,’ ‘training,’ ‘working out’ and ‘I’m an athlete!’ Also, the victim usually eats well, in fact eats a lot! Exercise compulsion often accompanies anorexia and because the victim is grossly underweight, it is easy to spot. Those who have just exercise bulimia often have normal body weights, so it’s easy to miss.

When physical fitness becomes constant physical injuries, when the ‘athlete’ does not stop his/her ‘training’ despite horrible pain, it is a clear sign that exercise has taken on a different meaning from merely physical fitness.

Exercise is now a compulsion, an obsession that the exercise bulimic cannot stop. The anxiety and guilt that is created when the person with exercise bulimia cannot ‘train’ is so severe that he/she must continue with the exercise program at all costs to the body.

I have listed below, the signs to look for in exercise bulimia, from Elizabeth Quinn’s article called, Exercises Obsession and When Fitness Becomes Unhealthy.

Signs of Obsessive/Compulsive Exercise:

  • You have many of the symptoms of overtraining syndrome, such as increased injuries, lack of motivation for your chosen activity, a sudden drop off in performance, lowered immunity and continual fatigue.
  • You exercise at all costs, even if you don't feel well.
  • Exercise is no longer fun.
  • You never have "easy" days, but you go as fast or hard as you can at each and every workout.
  • You experience severe stress and anxiety if you miss a workout.
  • Exercise is your number one priority, and you miss social and family obligations because you have to exercise.
  • Your amount of exercise is determined by the number of calories you eat or have eaten.
  • Exercise is more important to you than getting together with your friends.
  • You won't relax because you think you're not burning calories.
  • If you skip your exercise routine for even one day, you worry that you'll gain weight.

If any of this type behavior sounds familiar to you, or if you find yourself vehemently denying that it could be you, you may be using exercise in ways that are not beneficial to you and your overall well-being.

Your body-mind-soul now has so severe a disconnect that exercise is no longer improving your well being, but it is now detrimental. Remember that what you do to your body, you do to your soul. What you do with your mind (your thoughts), you do to your soul.

What you do to one, you do to the other, as Henry David Thoreau said so well. Healing your body-mind-soul requires that you listen to your body and the messages that it brings you.

May you go forward with healthy exercise for your body-mind-soul! If you feel that exercise bulimia may be a problem for you, please seek help! I suggest you try a Yin Yoga practice to reconnect your body back into yourself, your mind and your soul!

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